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When are we going to start caring about North Koreans?

Over the last few weeks, discussion of peace talks between North and South Korea have intensified, and it looks like a peace treaty ending the 72-year war will materialize in the near future. This comes at the end of nearly 15 years of intense sanctions by the U.N. and its member states to punish the North Korean military and political elite, who have spent the time establishing themselves as the most credible nuclear threat in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Peace talks would be the most legitimate credit to world peace of the last 20 years and are making headlines across the world. 

So when are we going to start caring about North Koreans? 

North Korean citizens currently live under the most intense sanctions ever cast on a country by the U.N. A response to North Korea’s belligerent foreign policy and nuclear testing, these embargos cover almost all of the country’s exports, including oil and textiles. The original purpose of the sanctions was to put pressure on North Korean elites who hoarded the majority of profits from exports or poured the money into more propaganda or military testing. But the sanctions had a devastating effect on the citizens of North Korea, who already suffer intense persecution and routine purges from the reigning Kim regime. The effectiveness of sanctions in applying political pressure has been contested for years, and nowhere in the world have the problems been more apparent than in the West’s dealings with North Korea. The quiet truth is that when sanctions are put into place, they very often end up affecting not the political elites they are meant to punish, but the citizens under their control. The average national income in North Korea is less than $2,000 a year, and one in four North Koreans suffer from food insecurity. All the while, the North Korean elite have remained happy, healthy and relatively insulated from the effects of the blockade. 

The United States views North Korea as one of the premiere threats to world peace. Its denuclearization and demilitarization has been a national security priority for eight presidential terms. But when are we going to recognize that sanctions, long viewed as a diplomatic option to belligerent countries like North Korea, are more harmful to the poor than the wealthy elite? In one of the most private and closely-guarded countries in the world, it’s difficult to exactly gauge the exact effect that decades of economic stifling have had on the peasant farmers and textile workers of the Kim regime. But the textile and agricultural industries are delicate and closely tied to lower-income workers, and the economic results of 90 percent of the export market being cut off would result in nothing less than a nightmare for people who already live far below the poverty line. The sanctions also make it harder for other, legal shipments to make it into the country – things like food, medicine and drugs, as well as humanitarian efforts from non-profits like UNICEF that were aimed at helping children and pregnant women. The U.K. announced in November that it would be cutting off all aid to the country, making the situation even more dire. The consequences are hard to ignore. 

The North Korean people have been struggling for 70 years. The U.N. has ignored their plight in order to secure its own safety. It’s easy to forget about these people, about the 25 million innocent civilians hiding behind the small east Asian country’s barbed wire borders. They are the very definition of out of sight, out of mind. While the political elites rattle their swords and invite heaping economic blockades, the people holding the country on their backs quietly suffer the consequences while the rich go unpunished. It would perhaps be too far a bridge to make to imply that the United States or its allies are directly responsible for the plight of the North Koreans. The Kim dynasty is ruthless and brutal towards their citizens, who worship them like gods. But our sanction policy has been at best accidentally belligerent and at worst willfully neglectful to the welfare of the people who make up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And again, this is not to say that this was the wrong decision; sanctions as a path to denuclearization is perhaps the best-case scenario in this long-running global crisis. But when the dust has settled, it will be in the rehabilitation of North Korea’s millions of impoverished citizens that this administration’s dedication to stability in the region will be truly tested. 


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